Transgenerational Ethics [Sample]

Transgenerational Ethics [Sample]

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming essay-book Transgenerational Ethics. Keep an eye out for it on my Amazon author page, it will be out later this summer. The whole book is more or less a critique of liberal individualism and John Rawls in particular, but this is the section that deals with his theory most explicitly:

21. Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance

This solution to the conflict between justice and equality is both intuitive and natural. The naturalness of the solution invokes a question: why was a solution necessary? What brought justice and equality into conflict in the first place?

While theories of equality and individualism long predated the 20th century, no philosopher championed the cause as successfully as John Rawls. For our purposes, he represents the strongest argument for individualistic justice.

In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice. Rawls defined Justice in relation to liberty and equality. He established this by way of a thought experiment known as the veil of ignorance.

The problem that Rawls was attempting to address was the problem of suspicion. Within a society, different people need to get along with each other with a reasonable degree of trust, and trust is predicated upon justice. In order to maintain trust between the members of society, there must be one standard of justice for all members. But different people are likely to defend different conceptions of justice, usually coinciding with what would benefit themselves. How could objective justice be determined? And who would be able to make such a determination?

In Rawls’ thought experiment, we are to imagine ourselves in “the original position,” potential players in the game of social life with knowledge of the rules but without knowledge of the station in which we will be placed. We are ignorant of which body we will be born into, within this society. In such an original position, we would be able to determine how a just society might function free from the biases of personal interest.

Rawls’ conclusion based upon this thought experiment is that the objectively just society will (1) maximize liberty for all members, and (2) only tolerate social and economic inequality to the degree that the worst off are better off than they would have been under an absolutely equal society.

22. The Failure of Ignorance

Rawls’ veil of ignorance is dependent upon an assumption that individuals could have been born as another individual. But this is clearly not the case. As has been demonstrated in sections 7 – 9, 14, and 18, individuals are the products of legacies that are intertwined with the necessary conditions with entering the society. The individualist premise of the veil of ignorance is therefore as absurd as the claim that a chicken egg might just as easily has hatched a rabbit, or a frog, or a shark, and that it was only by luck that it happened to be yet another chicken born from a chicken egg. Things could not have been otherwise, because the “I” is not separate from the body that we inherit, and neither is distinct from the legacy that we inherit as new manifestations of a transgenerational identity.

Now Rawls did not intend “the original position” to be taken as literally true. Rather, it was a thought experiment designed merely to provide a path towards objective justice. Pointing out the logical impossibility of the “original position” may therefore seem like a straw-man[1]. But this is not the case, because it is in the imagining itself that the failure takes place. The veil of ignorance is only appealing to the degree that we accept some concept of “objective good” which is necessarily grounded in our own subjective experience of the good. This subjective experience, however, is inseparable from the specialness of ourselves to ourselves. I am more important to myself than a stranger is. If I happen to be competent enough, patient enough, or willing to sacrifice enough to give myself a competitive edge over my neighbor, this will result in a social inequality that will not benefit my neighbor.

Saying that it could benefit our neighbor based on some long-term social calculus is no reply to this, because in Rawls’ second assertion about the just society—that it will only tolerate inequality to the degree that it benefits the least well-off—he necessarily establishes a default. In doing so, he removes the burden of proof from those demanding equality, who are ordinarily required to cite a particular act of injustice which disadvantaged them and places the burden firmly upon those asking permission to be different. An aggrieved party does not need to prove an injustice has been committed; the beneficiaries of inequality must prove greater social good.

This means that under Rawls’ veil of ignorance, a father’s desire to leave an inheritance for his son—the building block of life and of civilization—is not admitted by default because inheritance often results in social and economic inequalities. This inheritance must be justified, and the justification cannot be grounded in the father’s own love for his own son. Rather, it must be grounded in the benefit that his preference for his own child might have for those who are the least well-off in society.

In this way, “justice” as implemented through the veil of ignorance makes us inhuman to those closest to us. The separation of ourselves from ourselves in the thought experiment cannot be divorced from the breaking of ourselves in the real world.

And of course, it also removes the incentives and the trust necessary for establishing and retaining legacy. But even if we believed that civilization was a price we were willing to pay for equality, the bargain would still not be worth it, because such a theory would require us to give up love as well.

These effects should not surprise us. In Matthew Crawford’s rebuttal[2] to Rawls’ predecessor and metaphysical source—Immanuel Kant—he argues that in Kant’s attempt to preserve “free will” from the mechanistic causality of David Hume, he defined the will outside the body and separate from the material world and causality itself. In Crawford’s view, the result was an ethic that allowed for the commodification of our attention, because it was assumed as a moral principle that we were responsible for our behavior completely divorced from the reality that shaped it. But our environment does shape our behavior. By trying to save “free will,” Kant accidentally allowed us to become less free to act in our own interests, because we were given no moral claims to control over our environment, the “attentional commons” that molds us and guides us.

In the same way, who we are is an important variable in how we ought to act, and how best to achieve a just world. We forget this at our peril.

In the end, reality is its own best model.


[1] A “straw-man” argument is an intentionally misrepresented version of an opposing argument that is easier to refute than the real one.

[2] Crawford, Matthew B. The World beyond Your Head: on Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016.

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